Hello Dr. G!!

My name is Sheila. I live in Vancouver, and am the mother of two wonderful kids (15 and 16 years of age). My question for you is about my marriage. A marriage that I am increasingly questioning as I approach my 50s.

Let me start by saying that my husband is a good man, and an even better father. On those two fronts I have nothing to complain about. The area where I have real concern is that we he no longer seems to enjoy my company. We don’t argue per se, but he just doesn’t seem to be into me.

We’re really in sync when coordinating parenting responsibilities and taking care of the day to day, but something is missing. Whenever I bring this up he shuts down the conversation by saying that I am “overthinking things”, that he’s happy in the marriage and acting how he always has.

I think that he may be right with that last point. Maybe this is how he’s ALWAYS been and it’s now not enough for me. Maybe I’ve changed.

I’m conflicted as to what to do Dr. G. I love him as a friend, I respect him as the father of my two beautiful children, but I’m not happy with our connection (or the lack of it). I feel guilty feeling this way. He’s a good man and I don’t want to hurt him in any way but I don’t know what to do. He refuses to discuss this matter with me, so I zip it and bottle it up.

With each passing day I feel more distant from him and have begun imagining a life without him (it’s a scary thought). I know that the grass is not always greener on the other side but I really want to share the rest of my life with a partner that I’m more connected with on a spiritual level. I really want that person to be my husband — or at least, I want us to see if we can improve things. Maybe deep inside he’s unhappy and is just riding it out, accepting his (our marriage) as his fate.

I don’t know what to do. How can I get through to him that we’ve lost our connection. He hates date nights (he prefers to watch his games), is not open to traveling (w/out the kids), and other than kid related things, barely talks about his feelings and thoughts. I admit that he’s never been the talkative type, so maybe it’s me who’s changed. Maybe it’s me who wants something different from the man I’ve loved for over 20 years. Maybe he can’t offer me what I want or is just unwilling to.

What should I do Dr. G? How can I get him to understand how disconnected and under-appreciated I feel without him getting annoyed and acting like all is ok? We will be empty-nesters in a few years and I’m afraid of what’s on the other side. How can he truly claim to be “happy” when I’m not??

Sheila

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Dear Sheila,

Thank you so much for sending such a heart-felt letter detailing how you have been feeling. I believe that your letter probably resonates with thousands and thousands of women who might read it. First, let me address the issue of change. I HOPE you have changed in 20 years! I would imagine you and your husband have both changed, and the fact that you have stayed together all these years suggests that either you have moved (changed) in the same direction, or you have simply been so focused on raising your children that other areas of your lives have been neglected or have taken a backseat. This commonly happens, and probably explains why so many couples divorce after two or three decades of successful marriage.

At the end of the day, we all must live with the consequences of our decisions. We are all so preoccupied with making the “right” decision, but truthfully I’m not sure there is such a thing. We can only hope to make the best (i.e., healthiest) decision in the moment that we must make that decision, and that is wholly dependent upon the limited information we have at that moment. It is unhealthy to continuously focus on the “would-haves, could-haves, or should-haves.” Fostering compassion in our lives helps us forgive and accept our decisions and those of other people with more grace.

The real issue here is regarding your sense of happiness. This dilemma begs a few questions. Why have you more recently become aware of your increasing level of dissatisfaction? Why now? You have some insight into why you feel unhappy in the context of your marriage, but it also appears that you attribute much of your unhappiness to your husband’s lack of involvement (or perhaps his emotional detachment?). Decades of happiness research has shown us the importance of our relationships with other people. However, let’s also not forget that happiness is not something that another person can provide you or make you feel, it does not fall from the sky, and it does not always originate from the things we think it might, e.g., especially extrinsic or external “things.” The happiness that is most valuable is that which originate from inside us, and most often from intangible aspects of our lives.

Couples counseling may help the two of you communicate more effectively, and I believe that if you are starting to think about leaving him then you have absolutely nothing to lose by making the effort to do what you can to fix things. That way, if you do ultimately decide on divorce, you will have no regrets and you will know that you tried everything you could before making irreversible change. Communication is key. When communicating needs with your partner, try not to focus on what they are doing wrong, but rather focus on what your needs are in life and your relationship. In other words, start the conversation with “I” instead of “You.” Also, let your husband know what he does well (or what he has done in the past that made you feel so happy), and positively reinforce those behaviors. The people who love us want to see us happy, and typically will step up if we give them the chance to, but beating the other person down is much less effective and tends to foster resentment and the opposite of what we want.

There is also something very important to think about since your happiness truly is your responsibility. There are plenty of people who are single, and also people who have divorced and remarried “better” partners and are still unhappy. It’s absolutely okay for you to want more from your marriage, but that requires two committed people to invest in making those changes. But there are so many changes that you can make on your own part that may actually help you with a paradigm shift or help you experience your marriage in a completely different way. First, focus on yourself (and that include individual counseling to help you sort out exactly how you are feeling and why). Happy feelings derive from happy thoughts. We have happy thoughts when we live mindfully (that means attentively and purposefully, moment-to-moment, without judgment). Are you adequately engaged in your own life? Mothers often neglect themselves for two decades and then feel so worn out and beaten up that they throw out the baby with the bath water without recognizing the real problem. Do you have a lot of girlfriends? Do you take time to socialize with them? Do you engage in self-care activities, just for YOU. Do you exercise daily? Are you getting enough sleep? Do you engage in fun, pleasant activities that provide you a happier sense of self, like hobbies, or skill-based activities that contribute to your self-identity?

The bottom line is:  First put the spotlight on YOU. Make the changes you want in your own life and then see if your husband follows suit. If you make growth (i.e., by taking responsibility for what you can control – your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors), then it will inevitably place him in a position that he must also make growth, if you two are to remain together. If he does not make adequate self-growth and change, then he will be left in the dust, and it will become apparent to both of you that you may not be appropriate life partners moving forward. Your dilemma is a difficult one (and I’m sure painful) and also a very common one. We all want to “feel” happy. The great challenge is figuring out what happiness is for each of us, and most of us have to work hard to sort that out from all the noise and clutter in our lives. I have faith in your ability to do this, Sheila, as you appear to have insight, compassion, and the ability to communicate well.

I wish you good fortune and happiness in your journey.

Take care,

Dr. G

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Important: Responses or feedback provided to your posts are NOT a substitute for therapy or in any way meant to be therapeutic. While I hope my feedback will be beneficial, please understand that responses should be interpreted with caution and in the appropriate context, as often very limited information is provided.

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